Moderate Islam

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(HOST) What does the recent cartoon uproar in Europe have to do with Napoleon and Rolling Stone Magazine? Commentator Mike Martin says, “More than you might think.”

(MARTIN) In France, they take the separation of church and state very seriously. For example, there’s the time when Napoleon arrested the Pope. He and Pope Pius VI disagreed about the church’s temporal power, in other words authority over political matters as opposed to spiritual ones. When the Pope didn’t give up, Napoleon arrested him and brought him back to France where the poor pontiff died a prisoner. So the next Pope agreed to reform, and to more separation of church and state. In France today, there is still a feeling that the government must protect freedom of religion, but also democratic values.

So you can understand why so many French people are angry and afraid about the Danish cartoon conflict. Before the violent reactions to the caricature of Mohammed, most Europeans thought that the wars of religion were over. I mean, when Kanye West impersonated Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone, people thought he had a big ego – and may have been offended – but nobody said he should be killed. Blasphemy is no longer punishable by death in the West. Until now, most Europeans have insisted that Islam is compatible with Western democracy, but they haven’t explained all the details.

The Danish cartoon dispute shows that the devil is in the details. First of all, it raises the question of where freedom of religion ends and where free speech begins. The Danish editor of the cartoons raised the controversy on purpose because he felt that tolerant European democracies were allowing intolerance to prosper.

With the biggest Muslim population in Europe, the French have been struggling with this for a while now. Worried that some Muslim practices are taking away women’s rights, France passed a law to prevent Muslim girls from wearing the veil to school. The law was once again trying to protect the public sphere from religious doctrine, but the law’s ban of “ostentatious” religious symbols was a little unfair. It banned the Muslim veil, but not Christian crosses or Jewish skull caps. It also banned excessive hairiness with religious intent, a clumsy attempt to prevent Taliban-style beards from cropping up.

As the U.S. tries to improve its relationship with the Muslim world, we should pay attention to these controversies in Europe. Since these conflicts will define the relationship between religion and democracy, between Islam and the West, the outcome will affect us even here in the Green Mountains – and not just our sons and daughters serving in the military.

Now that most Europeans accept halal menus and fight negative Muslim stereotypes, they want their Muslim communities to compromise and adapt too. Europe has heard enough from the bigots. Now Europe wants its Muslim citizens to prove that they value tolerance too. Europe needs to know where modern Islam stands on polygamy, slavery, interest, and death sentences for blasphemers and adulterous women. And so do we. Europe is looking for a new ijtihad, the Muslim tradition of reform – and we can all hope it comes soon.

I’m Mike Martin of Burlington.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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